Hollywood’s latest sword-and-sandal epic Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time opens Friday, and while the draw is ostensibly fancy action sequences and video-game tie-ins, there’s a reason we and likely many others are privately referring to it as Not Without My Abs: The Jake Gyllenhaal Story. In fact, Jake’s foray into shirtless beefcakery so overshadows the rest of the film that it inspired us to study all the sandaled studs who’ve come before, so we can appreciate it not just hedonistically, but also historically. Through the following intensive, exhaustive, courageous examination of the male torso, we’ve one vital conclusion: The loincloths may remain the same, but the abs, they are a-changin’.
The Character: Maciste, a Roman nobleman’s muscular slave.
The Physique: This silent film (which spawned twenty-six sequels before 1927) is considered one of the earliest sword-and-sandal epics. The etymology of Maciste’s name is an Italian word for “large stone,” but as played by Bartolomeo Pagano, he looks less like he is carved from rock and more like he just eats them. Because in this era it wasn’t about the perfection of the ab, but the wish-fulfillment of having a big dumb henchman who will lift people up by the neck if you ask him nicely (or even rudely). Think of him as an early version of Mongo from Blazing Saddles, but without the depth.
The Character: Superstar of myth Ulysses, a sea-wandering journeyman whom you may remember from his turn in the epic poem The Odyssey.
The Physique: Though it’s been many years since we read The Odyssey, we don’t recall Homer penning that many odes to taut, firm abs. Ergo, we’ve decided that Kirk Douglas’s distinct lack of six-pack stems simply from devotion to the source material — and also perhaps because he was too busy cultivating his beard to exercise. That being said, Douglas’s lackluster physique also hails from a purer film era, in which Hollywood dared to be more about the performance itself than how your chest undulated while you yelled. So quaint!
The Character: Judah Ben-Hur, a Jewish merchant in 26 AD who gets punished into shipboard slavery and then — as one does — becomes a charioteer.
The Physique: Like Kirk’s, Charlton Heston’s muscles also bespeak an interest in accuracy. Sometimes, when you are full of vengeance and unfulfilled passion, and your family is in the Valley of the Lepers, and you’re bumping into Jesus all over town, it’s hard to find time for sit-ups. (Though how come all that rowing didn’t give him divine deltoids?) Also, since Ben-Hur fell from privilege, it makes sense that he’d have the kind of doughy tummy that comes from a few too many goblets of wine at the mutton buffet.
The Character: Maciste again, reborn during Italian cinema’s fifties and sixties sword-and-sandal boom as a handsome dude sailing around the world saving people from folks with big knives.
The Physique: This movie was immortalized on Mystery Science Theater 3000, where Tom Servo and Crow, et al., referred to Maciste as “My Cheesesteak.” But we doubt Maciste ever met a sandwich he trusted. The muscular Kirk Morris is just one of many who stepped into Maciste’s loincloth in this era, which was a visible precursor to the seventies bodybuilding craze: tiny waists, taut thighs, huge shoulders. However, the abdominal muscle in all of its individual, dinner-roll-size glory had yet to be fetishized — because really, Maciste mostly just needed rock-hard biceps for lifting wood, stabbing people, and sweeping submissive tribal queens onto his love raft.
The Character: Feisty — yet doomed — Roman slave/gladiator/political rabble-rouser Spartacus.
The Physique: For his second half-naked starring role, Kirk Douglas did debut a broader chest and a more rippling ribcage than in Ulysses, but the high-waisted man-briefs essentially act as control-top granny panties and distract from his bod’s potential greatness. In terms of pumping iron for maximum sex appeal, American heroes just hadn’t quite caught up with their foreign counterparts, in part because Hollywood wanted their gladiators to have hearts of gold rather than just abs of steel. (We know: yawn.)
The Character: You know, just a gang of shirtless gladiators, roaming the country and getting into scrapes, with names like “Gladiator” and “Gladiator.”
The Physique: The huge success of Spartacus led to an explosion of B- and C-list movies which were ostensibly also about gladiators, but which were actually about buff, oiled-up shirtless dudes sitting around (to wit, note how the only landscaping is of the shiny-pectoral variety). And our roving Spartaci are finally investing some time in their abs: In some cases, we’re even starting to see a vertical ridge down the chest and stomach, kind of like the Prime Meridian of abdominal geography. This film represents a growing awareness that, to paraphrase Marshall McLuhan, the abs don’t convey the message — the abs are the message.
The Character: Perseus, son of Zeus, solver of ancient Greek riddles, and crafty slayer of icky things.
The Physique: Sword-and-sandal epics dropped out of favor in the late sixties with the rise of the spaghetti Western, so naturally, the perfect way to bring the genre back was to meld it with its conqueror by having Harry Hamlin fight evil on winged horseback. And if cowboys didn’t ride around with washboard stomachs, why should Perseus? Indeed, somebody appears to have told Harry that all he needed to do was lie on the beach all day and brush his hair and occasionally pick his teeth with a knife: “Kill the kraken? What is that, like, a snack cake? Sounds fun!”
The Character: Conan, a wiry, redheaded late-night host — wait, sorry, a mighty slave who becomes a mighty warrior.
The Physique: Here is where things really shift from abomination to abdomination. Arnold’s arms and pecs are the showpiece — the governors, if you will (but you probably shouldn’t) — but you can see a shadow of the brimming six-pack that’s just itching to burst out of his chest like an alien hungry for a coup. It’s here when people realized there’s uncharted majesty just south of the Nipple Islands.
The Character: Hercules, who rescues people from warlords and the like, presumably in Ancient Greece but actually in Recent New Zealand.
The Physique: Arnold’s physique was stellar and all, but by the nineties his brand of big-muscle behemothery had been reapplied to trigger-happy mandroids (Terminator, et al.) and parodied on Saturday Night Live by Hans and Frans. The world needed a gentler, less comically waxed torso to save the day. Enter Kevin Sorbo, charming, toned, with a dusting of macho chest hair downplaying the hard ab ripples we all know exist. Think of them like our own skeleton: We don’t need to see it to feel relieved that it’s there.
The Character: Maximus, a cranky general turned slave turned best gladiator in all the land and object of Joaquin Phoenix’s lunatic wrath.
The Physique: These abs’ endgame was to bait Oscars, not Playgirl covers. When Russell Crowe was dropping all that weight from The Insider in preparation for this film, legend has it director Ridley Scott told him not to lose too much: “Remember, chunky is hunky.” And, indeed, Scott’s reimagining of the classic sword-and-sandals flicks of the fifties and sixties owes more to Kirk Douglas than Colossus, with a hero who — rather than look like he spent all his time bench-pressing goats and hurling plebeians — was just a normal, fit dude with good DNA who didn’t mind a nice glass of wine here and there. Hunky, indeed.
The Character: Badass warrior Achilles, former star of the epic poem The Iliad and possessor of a famous heel.
The Physique: Of an already deadly hot passel of Trojan warriors, Achilles was reputedly the most handsome — and as such, his onscreen representative, Brad Pitt, needed a stomach that would grate all other stomachs to a trembling pulp. Consider it the movie that turned a washboard into a status symbol: If Helen of Troy’s was the face that launched a thousand ships, these are the abs that launched a thousand covers of Men’s Health. It’s like a six-squared-pack, and the abs that all other gladiator abs wish they could be.
The Character: Alexander the Great, famous Greek leader, legendary general, and student of Aristotle. Perhaps you’ve heard of him?
The Physique: Compared to Brad Pitt in Troy, Colin Farrell looks like he spent his prep time for Alexander eating doughnuts and thinking about his highlights. However, this is also a movie in which we’re supposed to believe that Angelina Jolie is Farrell’s mother, so lackluster, second-rate abs were probably the least of Colin’s worries. We suspect this flick is less of a mile marker in the abs’ journey to prominence than a tiny speed bump, borne of production woes and near-certainty of being lost in Troy’s shadow. Besides, Alexander was smart, right? His abs are his mind.
The Character: King Leonidas, a Spartan Abercrombie model warrior leading a million-man army against Persia.
The Physique: The helmet makes Gerard Butler unrecognizable, and nobody cares, because after this visual a billion fan fictions were born — almost all of them involving multi-sexual tongue baths of Butler’s prodigious physique. These abs say, “What’s the plot? I don’t know. Do you? Do you care? Yeah, I didn’t think so.” It’s eye candy drizzled in blood and guts, elevating sword-and-sandal flicks to the faceless warrior porn they were meant to be.
The Character: Prince Dastan, a brave commoner who — of course — is adopted by the king so that his sons won’t fight to be his heir. (That seems like a bad idea, by the way.)
The Physique: Much has been made of Jake Gyllenhaal — he of the puppy-dog eyes, indie scruff, and soft voice — buffing up to play a beefcake. But once you’ve seen Gerard Butler’s six-pack, which looks like his stomach is trying to give birth to a turtle shell, Gyllenhaal’s abs seem less washboard than surfboard: firm, sure, but useless with laundry. Maybe this tells us that the abs of a kindhearted orphan turned hero are more humble and quietly delicious than those of men born into vainglory or tortured into vengeful rage. But we think it’s just that, after veering nonstop between obscurity and wild excess, the ab muscle of sword-and-sandal fame — like society itself — is trying to normalize and find a happy medium where it can have both its contours and some carbs. We hope it calls to tell us the secret.